Facing the Future and Organizational Memory in Sydney
Moriah College is the largest Jewish day school in Sydney and is still very much influenced by its history. Indeed, the figure of Abraham Rabinovitch, its founder and dominating personality until his death, continues to loom large. As one enters the grounds of its magnificent campus, opened in 1993, one follows the Rabinovitch History Wall through the center of the campus. The school grounds display the names of donors on the various buildings. All were Holocaust survivors who succeeded in spectacular ways after arriving in Sydney with nothing. In this way, memory is infused throughout the school. The school maintains an archive with a professional archivist to ensure that its memory is well tended.
The beginnings of Moriah College, initially named the North Bondi Hebrew School and Kindergarten, are important as part of this organizational memory. In March 1942, a small group of dedicated men, who were dissatisfied with the state of Jewish education, met in the schoolroom of the old Central Synagogue in Sydney’s eastern suburbs to discuss the establishment of a Talmud Torah. This initial meeting, which took place as Hitler’s “Final Solution” was being implemented in Europe, was to be the precursor of Moriah College.
Within a few months, Abraham Rabinovitch, inspired by Rabbi Hans Elchanan Blumenthal, a German Jewish refugee, had purchased a property in Bondi. This campus has remained the location of the Moriah College Preschool until the present day.
Born in Tsarist Russia, Rabinovitch managed to leave in 1914 and arrived in Brisbane via Harbin in China in 1915. After World War I, he moved to Sydney, where he became a property developer. Having no children of his own, he dedicated himself to the Jewish community and Jewish education. He invited Rabbi Blumenthal to be principal of the new school. They were considered to be “the mother and father” of what became Moriah College.
At the school’s opening in February 1943, a moving address was given by Rabbi Blumenthal, who, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, was acutely aware of the historical significance of this undertaking at the most tragic time in Jewish history. The Sydney Jewish newspaper, The Hebrew Standard of Australasia, reported:
The reason why in this solemn moment of consecrating the new school, he [Blumenthal] recalled to mind and also wished to recall to the mind of those present, the saddest reality of the present time, the unspeakable agonies of European Jewry. Let us silently remember them, all those who over there on the other side are experiencing the full brunt of mysterious Jewish suffering, and all centers of Jewish learning that are lying in ruins. A young pupil wrote recently from a distant country: “At the moment when so many Jewish centers had to close down, you have to open a new one at that end of the globe.” Whilst not as assuming as to believe that we are already striving for that goal, we must feel that we are “on the way” and that we must do our share.
For Blumenthal, the opening of the kindergarten was only the first step toward “our unshakeable aim” to build up a Jewish day school. He believed that Jewish learning must rank as the “foremost in value when our very national existence is impugned through the greatest physical disaster that ever in our history had befallen us.” There is no doubt that Rabbi Blumenthal’s hope has been realized, while its Holocaust legacy is still strongly felt within the school.
However, Rabinovitch was a complex character. His vision, tenacity and generosity led to the provision of a range of Jewish institutions in Sydney. Although he devoted energy and money to the causes he espoused, problems arose with his leadership. He acted in a dictatorial manner, appointing boards, arguing with them and putting pressure on those who did not agree with him to resign.
When Rabinovitch was elected board president of the new school, he built a like-minded team of Orthodox Jewish men, largely from East European backgrounds. His vision for the school was to maintain a strictly Orthodox approach and the team supported this vision.
As headmaster, Rabbi Blumenthal soon came into conflict with Rabinovitch over the nature of the leadership of the new institution, so their partnership did not last long. Blumenthal sought to recruit students from the broader Jewish community, which was largely non-practicing Orthodox, but he failed to find support from the school’s lay leadership. Within a year, he had resigned as headmaster. In his letter of resignation, he stated, “I feel that I have really exhausted the scope of my abilities in Sydney being unable to develop things further under the prevailing conditions.” Even though he offered to teach for a further term, until a replacement head was found, his resignation was accepted immediately by the board.
Reflecting later about his resignation, Blumenthal wrote:
Whereas I strove to achieve a scope which would include the entire community for each group of Sydney Jews, Rabinovitch was thinking of a separate parochial institution limited to people of his persuasion. Since he purchased the building out of his own pocket and also paid for most of its activities, his opinion overcame my own.
In February 1944, Rabbi Blumenthal left Sydney for a position as rabbi of the Elwood Synagogue in Melbourne, and later he moved to South Africa and finally Israel.
In the chapter “Rabinovitch Years in Retrospect” in my history of Moriah College, If You Will It, It Is No Dream: The Moriah Story 1943-2003, I wrote:
From the beginning, the philosophy of the school was strictly Orthodox, but most of pupils came from non-observant Jewish homes as the school aimed to reach out to all Jewish children. While there were some children whose families kept kashrut and Shabbat strictly, they were the minority. Catering for both groups of children was difficult.
As Rabbi Jacob Katz, the director of Jewish studies, described it:
With the children from religious homes, I had no problem increasing their knowledge of Judaism and they appreciated it because it was like enlarging their home life. The difficulty with the other children was not so much the imparting of knowledge but the teaching of Jewish practice which was not in line with their experience at home. I never succeeded in solving that problem. However, I tried ever so hard never to cause a rift between the children and their home. That would have been the greatest pedagogical blunder.
In addition, many parents were not interested in “advancing their children’s knowledge of Jewish studies” because of the fear that they might become too Jewish. Rabbi Katz did try to run some parent education programs but he found that he had to be very careful not to alienate non-observant parents.
This issue has remained one of the major problems for the Jewish education program at the school. Since the initial conflict in 1943 between Rabinovitch and Blumenthal, the school board has remained loyal to Rabinovitch’s vision. Moriah has remained a Modern Orthodox School. Compulsory prayer is held every morning, with these sessions being run on Modern Orthodox lines. From Year 7, boys and girls are separated. The Jewish studies lessons are also placed firmly within the Orthodox framework.
Yet the majority of students come from non-Orthodox backgrounds. In GEN17, the recent quantitative survey of Australian Jewry, David Graham and Andrew Markus found in their preliminary findings that there has been a shift from the Orthodox/Tradition streams to the progressive or secular. In terms of different aspects of Jewish identity, only 46% of those surveyed stated that “Believing in God” was very or fairly important; 36%, prayer; 34%, observing Halakhah; and 31%, studying Jewish texts.
These findings match other parts of the Jewish Diaspora world, but indicate a disconnect between Rabinovitch’s vision, the Moriah ethos and the reality of the situation in the community. In its vision statement on the website, the College states:
Moriah… maintains and promotes among its students an awareness of and a feeling for Jewish traditions and ethics, an understanding of and a positive commitment to Orthodox Judaism and identification with and love for Israel…
Moriah College is an independent, co-educational Modern Orthodox Zionist Jewish school, which prides itself on providing the highest standard of Jewish education.
Thus, Rabinovitch’s legacy for “a positive commitment to Orthodox Judaism” so clearly embedded in the College’s current ethos creates a challenge for the future.
At the same time, the GEN17 found that “Remembering the Holocaust” was the element that received the strongest reaction, with 95% of respondents believing that it was very or fairly important. This connects to Blumenthal’s moving words when Moriah was founded.
Holocaust memory went through different phases. When the school was founded, the Holocaust was not taught even though most of the students were children of Jewish refugees who arrived before the war or of Holocaust survivors. At the same time, funds from the Claims Conference in the 1950s and 1960s were crucial for Moriah’s economic survival.
When I introduced a course in modern Jewish history in 1976, this was the first time the Holocaust was taught in an Australian Jewish day school. One element of the Year 10 Jewish history program was to make the Hans Kimmel Prize (see sidebar) compulsory. As most of my students were children of Holocaust survivors, and their parents had never spoken to them about their experiences, they turned to me with concern: “How can we ask our parents about the Holocaust?” I had not realized what a radical step this was, but in the end most did, and later they were grateful.
As mentioned, many of the buildings are named after survivors, and in some cases their loved ones who perished in the Shoah. This applies to the Hugo Lowy Synagogue, named after the father of Frank Lowy, a shopping center magnate who arrived in Sydney with nothing and became one of the wealthiest men in Australia. Hugo Lowy perished when he left the train at Auschwitz, having been deported from Budapest. When he refused to give up his tallit and tefillin, he was beaten to death. (His story is memorialized on the school’s website.) Frank Lowy’s sons David and Stephen, who live in Sydney, have dedicated themselves to the school, and Stephen’s wife, Judy, currently heads the Moriah Foundation, established in 2011 to provide student scholarships and fee assistance to families who need this support. Thus, the legacy of the Shoah continues to pervade the school and the community.
There is no doubt that Moriah College continues to be molded by its organizational history. It values its history, as seen in its sponsorship of the publication of The Moriah Story, which they invited me to write to mark its sixtieth anniversary; the Rabinovitch Walk, and its archive. Yet this historical legacy also means that Moriah faces challenges in the twenty-first century. If the shift away from Orthodox/Traditional identification continues, it will result in a clash between the past and the future of the school.